wishing you a covid-free christmas
It’s been quite the year. We’ve been in and out of lockdown, Auckland and Northland have had weathered more restrictions than most and it would be fair to say everyone is feeling a little worn out by it all.
There’s been some resistance to the shift from the initial alert level system to the ‘traffic light’ system and, as we head towards Christmas, public health communication has become a little scrappier.
I find myself baffled by the easing of restrictions elsewhere in the world, particularly as new variants emerge and infection rates spike and I genuinely hope that the initial clarity of communication we experienced here in Aotearoa returns so people continue to understand the vital part they play in the protection of others.
That said, I hope that everyone who has been working so very hard throughout the pandemic has the opportunity to rest and recharge in the weeks ahead, take a breath and enjoy the summer. Thank you for all you do - and Happy (hopefully COVID-free) Christmas.
on staying home - one year on
After a summer relatively untouched by COVID19, March saw us back in lockdown here in New Zealand and, as the month comes to a close, we mark a year since we first found ourselves staying home and saving lives. It’s been a year when millions died around the world, millions more suffered terribly from the disease itself, and millions of others have had to endure the devastating societal consequences caused by the pandemic.
For the most part, Kiwis have been spared much of the horror. We’ve lost people - 26 families have been bereaved - but the enormity of the pandemic has been largely viewed from afar. Border closures, contact tracing and huge efforts by people working in managed isolation and on the border have meant we’ve been living a pretty ordinary life, free from the ongoing restrictions experienced by people around the world. Our government has managed the whole thing very well, opting for a health response first, and communication has been exceptional.
Sitting here, a year on from March 25 2020, I’ve only praise for our leadership and officials who have put people’s health first and done their very best in the most difficult circumstances. Public relations and communication teams across the country have worked tirelessly to keep everyone informed and engaged. Interesting then when you look at social commentary, mainstream media or catch five minutes of one of the ‘shock jocks’ on the radio - you’d think we had the highest death toll in the world and there’d been no action by government rather than our actual reality of living with some stability despite being in a period of crisis and managed change.
Change - with all its challenges and unfathomables - and particularly forced changed, such as that brought by the pandemic, can trigger grief. Grief for the loss of a loved one. Grief for a job gone, a career shredded, a way of life marked ‘discontinued’. And that’s ok - grief is perhaps the only normal process to be found in these abnormal times. What often makes the hurt harder is the opportunistic behaviour of those seeking to exploit current circumstances for their own ends - something that has happened throughout history but something that gets no easier with time.
Misinformation and disinformation have, unfortunately, formed an ugly alliance, joined in their union by opposition politicians stirring unrest in a bid to stave off their own irrelevance - none of which helps anyone at all. As we pass this milestone on our collective COVID19 journey, there are tragically many headstones to count - thankfully far fewer than anticipated in NZ at the start of the pandemic. There are many problems to be addressed and solved and, in the exhaustion of an ongoing crisis, actual information is not being shared as well as it was initially but, as I’ve said before, every structure is made up of many individuals, all doing their best in the most difficult of circumstances.
Globally, we remain in the grip of the pandemic and I’ve still got my money on reaching 2025 before we see the beginnings of more stable patterns. We know the old patterns have been shattered - a kaleidoscope shaken and the pieces scattered. As public relations and communication practitioners, we need to help people and organisations make sense of it. To do that, we need to listen and learn. Be prepared to shift our perspective and brave enough to be sense makers as we emerge into an unknown era filled with unfamiliar patterns.
Are you ready for the challenges ahead? For the impact artificial intelligence will have on public relations? On society? The pandemic caused a paradigm shift for millions with a leap to digital they never thought they’d take - but the change was coming long before then.
Subtle steps have taken us towards everyday artificial intelligence and the deployment of digital entities that sooth our emotions, help our daily tasks and act as companions at home. In case you missed it, that paradigm shift has even greater implications for public relations and communication practice, reshaping our work, redefining the relationships we build, the reputations we guard and the risks and issues we manage.
I tackled the topic recently in a webinar which you can access here. It takes you through the developments, the opportunities and the concerns of artificial intelligence, digital and human relationships and the problems we might expect.
In a world turned upside down, how do you develop strategies to navigate uncertain times? How do you develop strategic relationships that will help you survive and thrive in times of global recession? Available early July, our new course, Navigators, gives you the opportunity to find out how.
I've been looking ahead these last few months and, as we have slowly worked our way through lockdowns, dramatic societal change and new ways of operating, I've had the privilege and opportunity to guide fellow practitioners through the twists and turns of strategy development, examining some of the changes we face and how best to meet them.
We must constantly challenge ourselves to explore new approaches and new thinking so we can help our organisations make sense of what's ahead and maintain the relationships they need to maintain their licence to operate. Understanding the process, looking beyond the tactical - the 'sending out stuff' - is critical if our discipline is to remain relevant.
I hope you'll find this guided professional development session both useful and informative. Old rules don't apply - take some time to navigate the new ones.
There's a lot of talk about what's next. Like many others, I have some thoughts. Here they are.
New era (AC19) trust will be the new oil. Success and ability to restart operations will be based on your behaviour throughout pandemic, your redefined operating practices and your (genuine) concern for society and people. Economic structures and ‘success’ will look very different – by necessity. Models from the last century (and the century before) will be redundant with a need to re-focus the way society operates, a rethink of what constitutes ‘value’ and reform of political, societal, economic, environmental and technological activity.
Existing profit-driven economic models have been felled by COVID19 and, as we sink into global depression, recovery to the place often described as ‘business as usual’ is unlikely. There will not be any kind of normal for a long time – any ‘new normal’ is a decade away. There is – and will be – an unwillingness to go back to ‘how it was before’ with its inequities and imbalances. Since March 12, I’ve been urging people to spend the time we stay at home working on shaping what’s next, collectively taking the opportunity to understand and discuss the difference between value and profit (otherwise all that clapping and ‘thank you for your service’ chanting for those who have historically been omitted from any kind of value recognition will be nothing more than empty noise). Walk at least 100 laps around your mind and raise a million ideas for improvement.
Post-pandemic: PR’s first job must be to help turn the confidence curve – as viral transmission rises, so confidence and trust fall. Our job - build confidence and trust so people feel sense of safety just being out and at work. Ultimate test of success – I trust you enough to shake your hand or share a coffee with you or sit beside you and believe that what you say about your breath is true. PR will only have this job to do if it works to its central purpose – build and sustain relationships to maintain licence to operate, and central to relationships are trust, communication, behaviour and understanding.
Expect and plan for micro-localised/nano-economies till feasibility and freedom of personal, national and international travel is ascertained. We will see large scale demise of many sectors between now and 2022 and many will go the way of the dinosaur (including PR and marketing if they don’t renew purpose).
Plan for famine (see locusts swarms, supply chain breakdowns, post first-wave gate price drops, disrupted food production thanks to current droughts and altered weather patterns – e.g. Western USA megadrought in progress – all sitting neatly on top of widespread loss of income). Probably worth planning for war too as there’s an increased likelihood autocrats will start fights over scarce supplies or imagined slights in a bid to distract their national populations from the oncoming crushing depression. On the upside, the potential is there for global and regional interdependency to emerge as countries attempt to rebalance, recover and prepare for resurgence of COVID19 or other pathogenic threat.
In October 2019 all our talk was of sustainability and environment health. Taste for profit over people has waned and formation of a new approach is now a necessity. Emmanuel Macron expressed it well during his recent FT interview when he said (and I paraphrase) ‘we are fighting a disease that suffocates us and, when we recover, people will want to breathe clean air, all the time. They will not want to suffocate and attention must turn to ways we can protect our environment, listen to the earth and avoid finding ourselves in climate catastrophe’.
Smart thinking – one would hope - should make AC19 world fair, just and sustainable but progress will be slow as those ‘with power’ will not want to relinquish it to those currently 'without'. This year’s elections across the globe will reveal whether democracies still live or if they’ve been gerrymandered to death.
All businesses and organisations – small or large – must figure out why they’re relevant, their critical relationships and their degree of trustworthiness. Millions of people have had a fast-track re-education on ‘essentials’ – be they goods, services or people. Same millions are now in a precarious economic situation so even with restoration of their former level of subsistence, there will be a drastic reduction of the constructed consumption levels stimulated from 1980 onwards.
It’s going to be very messy with awful consequences for many people for quite some time. Our job is to ease things, help navigate through the storms, help others build the relationships they need to operate, collaborate and build what’s next. Many people won’t want to change, or indeed, admit a need for change. There will be a reluctance to accept change or adapt to different models (mainly from those for whom existing models are of most benefit by way of power and wealth). There will be friction and fracas but, with some hope, some smart thinking, some kind doing, a recognition and appreciation of true value and a willingness to make life better for every member of our human family, we’ll get there.
Update: This post came together following some comments I made in an online discussion with colleagues. It took on another form a couple of days later when I developed it into an essay for Stephen Waddington's blog which, if you're interested, you can read here.
Image: Danielle Macinnes at Unsplash
Last outing for a while occurred in Auckland on Tuesday, presenting communications help and guidance as part of a panel for The Alternative Board. The event was designed to help small to medium sized businesses work out how they are going to stay viable and get through the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I was speaking about communication - the need to plan, plan again, act, rethink and then plan again for what will be a very different normal if, as businesses and organisations, we manage to get through to the other side.
Health professionals the world over are working tirelessly to help the sick, develop a vaccine, manage the pandemic and more besides. Our challenge is to sustain our economic activities - working within official advice, instruction and guidance - so that people have jobs, demand is stimulated when shutdowns and capacity reductions have ceased. The big job as the after-effects move into 2021 will be to rebuild trust - smoothing the confidence curve pictured below - so people are willing to 'begin again', physically and mentally. It will be a different world and will need human creativity, collaboration and compassion to rebuild.
Video extract above for your information - if you need help, contact me and we can work out a remote consultation or training session - whatever would help you most. And remember - whenever possible, separate the facts from the fear.
Wherever you are in the world, stay safe, stay informed and stay kind.
It's that time of year when my attention turns outside in and I take another long look at the role of internal communications. Sharing knowledge around the preparation and implementation of good internal communication strategies always leads me to emphasis the fact that you can't have good external relationships if your internal relationships are poor or neglected.
Relationships of all kinds give our organisations the permission they need to do what they do and to keep their licence to operate. Sadly, internal relationships often fall by the wayside with employees taken for granted by the organisation's leadership. Much has been made of employee engagement and the need to ensure that everyone is delighted, enthralled and active in the workplace - which is great but, as humans, it is a rare thing if this actually comes to pass, particularly in an era that features zero hour contracts, unsafe work spaces, stress, burnout and the odd oppressive boss. What might be considered 'gold standard' internal communication is swiftly cancelled out by bad behaviour - whether that's the boss, the colleague or the employee themselves.
So what's next for internal communication? We've already seen the evolution of titles - employee engagement executive, employee relations officer, chief happiness officer and so on - but have we actually seen an evolution of the role? I don't think we have but it is getting there. Many internal communicators have moved on from 'sending out stuff' and simply actioning executive demands for information sharing and tools like Slack and Trello have helped internal organisational culture move forward a little (although there are growing reports of task update fatigue as employees struggle to use the collaborative tools and actually complete their work).
My thinking is that there's some internal rethinking for organisations to undertake and that has to start with an audit of their people, values, culture, tools and systems. Each of these things informs the other and a cohesive, effective internal communication strategy can only be formulated once this is done (and if you need some help understanding just how it is done, then we can help).
Internal communication is everyone's responsibility but not everyone's area of expertise. Bringing people together, facilitating good relationships, developing a healthy values-based internal culture is the realm of the internal communications professional and always has been. Communicators for sure - but also connectors, facilitators and encouragers specialising in building a workplace culture where people are empowered not just to get the job done but to do a great job.
hollow men rising
Worse than Boris Johnson clawing his way to power as UK Prime Minister is the news that he has appointed Dominic Cummings as his chief 'special adviser'. If you are unfamiliar with Mr Cummings, he was the mastermind behind the campaign that led to the Brexit referendum result. Previously Mr Cummings had been a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was head of Education in the UK.
Mr Cummings is a very, very smart man. Spend some time reading his blog (particularly this post which he leads with T S Eliot's The Hollow Men) and, if you work in public relations and communication management anywhere in the world, familiarise yourself with some of his views on our work. He has been portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War, which examined how manipulated, misleading and false information was compiled and distributed by the campaign organisers leading ultimately to a referendum result that subsequently tipped the UK into political chaos.
Along with the likes of Steve Bannon, Mr Cummings is intent on breaking systems and remaking society in the image he feels we deserve. His impatience and fractiousness with the conventional machinery of Whitehall seeps into his blog posts and pours into his actions. It is in some ways a justifiable impatience and I would generally agree that impenetrable and established organisations that operate 'for the sake of the system' need to be shaken, changed, improved and modernised but the motivation should be for the betterment of society rather than to prove a point or demonstrate how clever you are.
So why am I fearful? I am fearful because in his public expression of intent, his reformation of the UK's political system is an intellectual exercise motivated by a strong desire to prove he is unequivocally right about pretty much everything. I am fearful because the UK has an unelected, unqualified leader, known for his unruly, unreliable and narcissistic behaviours, who has instructed the machinery of government to be driven by an unelected adviser determined to break systems he abhors. I'm fearful for everyone who lives and works in the UK, for people on the Irish border, for people in Scotland, Wales and England who will have to deal with the disruption and difficulties about to ensue because, as with everything, it will be the people at the food banks who will be most affected by the machinations and applied intellectualism of the elite. It will be the families struggling to stay in their homes who will find the wolf at the door. It will be those seeking refuge and respite who will be pushed away and discarded. And it will be those who truly seek change who will find their way blocked, barricaded and refused as systems are rejigged to ensure power remains with the few at the ongoing expense of the many.
As for good communication, there is little hope of transparent engagement with publics. It will revolve around command and control. It will revolve around constructed communication designed to obfuscate and bewilder. As a journalist Johnson's perspectives waxed and waned entirely on the whim of his paymasters. As a prime minister, being good with words is not enough - ways and means must be found to end the division and nationalistic hatred so adroitly sown by both Johnson and Cummings during their Brexit campaign. A campaign fuelled by data analysis and algorithmic targeting designed to tap into the base emotions of the small minority needed to swing a vote that allowed some to cling to power and some the opportunity to break a system they despise. And I am fearful that the aims and ambitions of these new hollow men revolve around the manufacture of a new, impenetrable elite that values power at any cost.
AN UPDATE: Within 24 hours of Mr Cummings' appointment, Facebook was flooded with ads for the Conservative Party. The ruling party isn't planning for Brexit, it is planning for an election. This is a frighteningly clear example of data targeting being used to identify and exploit the emotional and economic vulnerabilities of marginal groups with a view to manipulating election results in order to retain power.
Ask for change
We change all the time. Every day, a little difference creeps into our lives and shifts the way we either work, play or view the world around us. Yet organisations and businesses struggle with change as if it were a dinosaur, unrecognisable in today’s world, out of place and time. Strange really that this should be the case but perhaps change becomes a challenge simply because organisations - of all sorts - fail to recognise that change is a constant in every life.
Change for the sake of it is rarely a good thing - my motto ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ holds fast in this context. But without change we don’t grow. Our development is stilted and futures become uncertain. When change fails the likelihood is that the reason for change is uncertain, the people involved - and it is people who are at the heart of change - have been left unrecognised or ignored. Above all, change fails when communication and collaboration collapse in a crumpled heap at the feet of mismanagement or poorly executed governance.
Public relations and communication professionals have been at the centre of change management for decades - even before change management became a discipline in its own right. We know that organisations need to maintain critical relationships in order to keep their licence to operate and relationships, by their very nature, are subject to change.
When dealing with change we must deliver to outcomes and effective, timely delivery is driven by first asking (and answering) some simple but complex questions.
We can ask the questions, do the research, formulate a plan, implement excellence in communication and compete the change - but what about the stumbling blocks? The obstacles? Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is an inadequate understanding on the part of the governance team as to why the change is taking place - and what life will look like once it has occurred. Reactive change implemented on the fly seldom succeeds. Purposeful change, driven by vision and mutually beneficial outcomes is the way to lead progress.
You can delve into acres of research, review countless methodologies and investigate the many alternative approaches to change management and all of it will be helpful. But at the heart of effective and productive change is the desire and willingness to improve the organisation, service or product, an understanding of the critical relationships that must be maintained with stakeholders and communities and ultimately, the delivery of tangible benefits to everyone involved.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.